Today I am 39 years old. My daughter woke up at 5:30 am, leapt out of bed and tore into my room. “HAPPY BIRTHDAY!” She said. She had brought her blanket and was settling in for a good long snuggle. When we heard her brother wake up at around 7 (“Mommy wake me up!” he hollers from the other room) she leapt out of bed to inform him of the important news and then they both came and snuggled.
Life is good at 39.
I’m lucky to have these rascals as my kids, and inexpressibly lucky to have my husband for my husband… but as I stop here at the end my 39th year, I realize that I’ve been lucky for a long time. My luck began about 70 years ago when my Grandmother and Grandfather met and fell in love. They were both incredibly lucky. My Grandfather was a brilliant and hilarious man. He had no equal and he had a lot of ardent admirers. But I actually think that he was the luckier one, because he got to be married to my Grandmother.
She was a miracle. She was my miracle, as a matter of fact. She was almost never flashy or intense or larger than life; she was smart, pleasant and a constant source of warmth. She did what she thought was right in every moment of her day and then she shared her wisdom with the rest of us. There are three such stories that stand out in my life as entirely transformative.
I miss her the most on my birthdays, so I take this opportunity to share these stories with you.
My Grandparents lived in Florida and I lived in Ohio. Every summer we would go to visit them during our summer vacation. One particularly difficult year, I called my Grandmother to tell her that I COULD NOT wait until I got to come and visit her. Many other grandmothers would bask in that kind of admiration.
My Grandmother said “I am looking forward to seeing you, too, Amanda. But you must learn to live with the anticipation. It’s very, very important that you don’t wish your life away.”
Feeling a little stung, I said “But Grandma, you don’t understand. Life is hard [I actually said a whole bunch of whiny things, but the spirit of it was “life is really, really hard for me right now”].”
“I do understand” she said. And obviously she did. It’s pretty rich for any 10 year old girl to tell a depression-era school teacher that she doesn’t understand hardship, but we’re all pre-adolescent once.
“But life is shorter than you think” she continued “and if you spend all your time waiting for it to finally be a different time, your whole life will pass you by with nothing of your own to show for it. The hardest times are still your times… don’t wish them away.”
It sounds crazy to think that one single moment at the ripe old age of 10 could transform me, but I assure you it did. It helped me to see how she coped with her own big and little hardships more clearly and I was able to model my own coping on hers. This ability to stand still and tall while hard times wash over me makes a better mother and human. I’ll be forever grateful to her for it.
The secret to being happy at 39: No matter how hard you life is, don’t wish your time away. It’s the only time you’ve got.
Life got complicated when I was in high school. My mother needed some time on her own, my brother was leaving for college and I wasn’t sure what would happen to me. My Grandparents moved up from Florida and I lived with them for the last two years of high school. In that time, my Grandmother showed me how to love deeply despite betrayal.
While I lived with them she shared more of herself with me, even asking me for advice now and then. I learned that my Grandfather’s brilliance and need for attention could be draining. “I’m really the only one here, it’s hard sometimes.” She shared that very matter of factly, woman to woman. This was a pivotal moment for me- when she thought I was ready to be a woman. I worked hard to see things like she did- every love is complicated, even if you can’t see it from the outside.
She showed me how to stick with my Mom, even though she had left. She was frank with me “People have problems, Amanda. It’s not usually about you. We love them because we love them. That’s just how it is. Take what she can give, and be glad for the love you can show her.” We learned together, Grandma and I, that you never give up on the people you love no matter how badly you hurt.
The secret to being happy at 39: Be grateful for every moment of love you can show to someone else regardless of what they are ready to show you in return.
About halfway through my 20s my Grandmother started to show signs of dementia. She was still the most pleasant person I knew and I loved every minute I could spend with her. My family kept me moving forward, despite the fact that all I wanted to was sit next to her on the couch and hold her hand. They told me “She wouldn’t want that, Amanda. She wants you to pursue your dreams.” So I did, but I came home as often as I could to sit on the couch next to her and hold her hand.
At 32 I got pregnant with my first child. I was six month along when I got the call “Grandma is not well. You need to come home.” I got the first flight I could.
I texted my brother “How is she?”
“Is she going to be there when I get home?”
He called me. “I’m really sorry, Amanda, she’s gone.” Sitting in the airport, waiting to board my plane, I fell completely apart. I hugged my in-utero baby for dear life and wept. I learned in that minute why there is a wailing wall in Israel. There should be a place where you can go to rage and weep; to fully feel the crashing waves of loss as they drive your heart deep into the sand.
Gone, gone, gone.
I wept for almost a week straight. I was at her funeral, weeping, and there were people who couldn’t look at me. My loss was too intense for them. One brave soul came up to me and wrapped me in her arms, “You will feel better again, I promise.”
For the first time in a week, I felt something other than a gaping abyss of loss. Indignant rage rose in my throat, “I hope not! I don’t ever want to feel better about this. How am I supposed to live without her?” and then I was crying again. My husband, mother, brother, cousins and Grandfather all did what they could and that was a lot. And I did feel better. Bit by bit, week by week… but I also haven’t ever learned to live without her. Instead, I’ve learned to live with the loss of her.
3 months later I had my first baby and I looked at her with newer, wiser eyes. I tell her every day that I love her. “I know, Mommy!” she says in exasperation and then I am satisfied.
This was my Grandmother’s final lesson to me about how to be happy at 39, and it was really the same lesson as the first and second. Life is shorter than you think. We are on this planet to love each other and to do so ACTIVELY, as much and as fervently as we can. Nothing lasts forever, no matter how important it is to you.
It’s my honor to carry the loss of her.
The final secret to being happy at 39: Love who you love as actively as you can. Nothing lasts forever.
Amanda Crowell, PhD is a cognitive psychologist obsessed with how people make change. She is best known for translating cutting edge research into practical strategies that can be used right away.